In his latest film, Uncle Frank, writer/director Alan Ball explores issues with family, identity, and acceptance. The story, set in the 70s, focuses on Beth (Sophia Lillis), a bright young girl growing up in a small town in South Carolina. She doesn’t feel like anyone in her family understands her with the exception of her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). He is a smart witty college professor who encourages her to choose her own path and get out of the South. Years later, Beth takes Frank’s advice and enrolls in New York University, where he also teaches. She discoverers that her uncle is gay and lives with his partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi, Ball’s real-life husband). Frank has kept his sexuality hidden from his family for decades. Before Beth can digest this new information, they learn that Daddy Mac, her grandpa/Frank’s father has passed away. Frank is reluctant to return home for the funeral because he and his father had a contentious relationship. But Beth and Wally convince him to go. On the trip back home, secrets are unearthed and demons come back to haunt Frank.
Family dramas are Ball’s strong suit. Just like with his series, Six Feet Under, he creates an interesting clan here. At the forefront is Bettany’s compelling performance. Frank’s defiance and strength hide a lot of hurt. That pain comes to the surface in several well-acted scenes where Frank has to face his past. On the flip side, Macdissi delivers comic relief with Wally. But he also shows a lot of depth underneath the humor. Lillis is a great new talent. Her character comes of age before our eyes, growing from a timid teenager to a confident young woman. The rest of Frank’s family is filled in with fantastic supporting actors like Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, and Judy Greer.
Ball loosely based Uncle Frank on his own experience with his father, who was closeted. He continually hits home the message of being true to yourself. Moreover, despite how smothering family can be and how you feel like you need to run away from them, once you return home you may realize that you actually do belong and this is where you’re supposed to be.
The Boys in the Band has gone from a play to a film to a revival of the play and finally to a screen version of the revival. It really has come full circle. The recent iteration came out on Netflix this week, fifty years after the original movie debuted. I was eagerly awaiting its release and I have to say that I enjoyed it as much as its predecessor.
Gay, Gay, Gay
The Netflix movie employs the exact same cast from the stage play. Having seen the play, I’m glad everyone was able to reprise their roles. They’re an extremely talented group. What’s also noteworthy is that all nine actors are openly gay. Back in 1970, some of the actors were gay, but nobody was out. It would have been career suicide. As it was, all nine actors, found it hard to find work after playing gay on screen. So, decades later to have actors who can be both open about their lives and still have thriving careers is incredible. Coming along on the journey was the late screenwriter Mart Crowley, who wrote the original play and movie. He was assisted by Ned Martel this time. Plus, Ryan Murphy and Joe Mantello acted as the producer and director, respectively, on the revival and the movie. Both are out. Overall, this project was pretty damn gay. As it should be.
Because the movie is so insular, chemistry between the actors is very important. They all have it and work very well with each other. Jim Parsons (Michael) and Zachary Quinto (Harold) do a particularly great job of playing off one another. Their characters are the best of friends and the worst of enemies. A kind gesture can quickly turn into an evisceration. Finding that fine line between love and hate takes skill. Similarly, Andrew Rannells (Larry) and Tuc Watkins (Hank) play a battling couple. They’re supposed to be lovers, but they can’t stop fighting. Conveying that love with all the underlying tension and strife comes easily though. It’s also sweet to know that Watkins and Rannells fell in love, in real life, while making the revival.
Cowboy, Donald, Alan
The script for the remake stays close to the original, but there were certain additions. I noticed that the Cowboy (Charlie Carver) had a few more lines. This made it so that he was more self-aware as opposed to how stupid he comes off in the original. It seems like Donald (Matt Bomer) was fleshed out too. I think Bomer’s expressiveness added to the character. He says so much with that handsome face. On the flip side, I’m happy that they didn’t add much to Alan (Brian Hutchison). It has always been a big question about whether or not he was gay. Crowley could have updated his work and made that clearer. But I think it was better to keep it ambiguous and let the viewers draw their own conclusions.
As I’ve said before, Michael’s NYC apartment in the original movie is one of my favorite sets in cinematic history. I wanted to move in and live in that world. The Netflix version is equally admirable. A spiral staircase, the huge living room, and beautiful rooftop space. Amazing. But this time the set was deliberately made to look a little run down, which was smart. It made it seem more lived in. Plus, Michael could never afford to fix it up. He spent all of his money on sweaters.
Outside the party
Aside from the opening montage of the characters out in the city, the original contained the action to Michael’s apartment. This added to the play-like feeling when you watched it. This go around Mantello takes the audience outside the party. As they’re playing the brutal telephone game, Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) and Emory (Robin de Jesus) flashback to their past loves. In Bernard’s case you see the dreamlike night where he swam naked with a rich white boy. With Emory, you experience the humiliation he felt at a school dance after everyone finds out he confessed his feelings to his crush. Each flashback gives you the chance to understand and connect with these characters, moreso than the original allowed. On that note, after Michael’s last line, when the story normally ends, you see all of the characters and how they’re coping after that intense party. It gives the audience another chance to check in on them.
The more things change…
Despite some changes, the remake retains the essence of the original. I had a friend who asked if this version had the same self-loathing and bitchiness. I said, yes, and that’s the point. This is a look back at a time when gay men couldn’t be out or even legally gather together. They were made to hate themselves and some lashed out internally or externally. Shame can be dangerous. The 2020 version doesn’t shy away from that. But then there are the lighter moments. I found myself laughing at the same jokes I’ve heard many times before or delighting in the dance number at the party. The highs and lows make the story interesting and relatable. For that reason, The Boys in the Band, however it’s presented, will always be worth seeing.
Before watching the documentary Killing Patient Zero, I knew very little about Gaetan Dugas. It turns out he was a loving son, brother, and friend. He enjoyed his job as a flight attendant for Air Canada. He was also openly gay and completely unashamed of his life. The one thing I thought I knew about Gaetan was completely wrong: he was not the man who inflicted AIDS upon the world.
At the beginning of the epidemic, doctors were desperate to figure out how this “gay cancer” was being spread. They theorized that sex was the cause and began to interview a sampling of gay men about their sexual history. Gaetan was one of these patients who generously cooperated with the CDC. Doctors produced a cluster study that featured him, amongst others, showing how the disease had traveled through sexual partners. Later, Gaetan was mistakenly labeled as “patient zero”, as if AIDS had originated with him. Reporter Randy Shilts latched onto this false story when he was doing research for his novel And the Band Played On. He took it a step further by writing that Gaetan had knowingly passed on the disease to the men he slept with. Once Shilts’ book was published, Gaetan, who had died by then, was put in the spotlight and his reputation was savaged.
Director/writer Laurie Lynd attempts to repair this damage in her documentary. Through interviews with healthcare professionals who were on the frontlines, he dispels the myth of a patient zero. They confirm that Gaetan was not the originator of AIDS. His friends talk about the warm caring man they knew. Someone who would not have purposely spread a disease. There’s even archival footage from a town hall meeting about AIDS featuring an outspoken Gaetan. The short video offers a much more accurate portrayal of him than Shilts’ book ever could.
I finished Zero feeling informed about the subject and also angry on his behalf. It’s horrible how this man was vilified by the public. I hope that more people will see the film and get an understanding of Gaetan’s true character. He and his loved ones deserve that vindication.
D’Arcy Drollinger wears many hats (and wigs) in her new movie Shit & Champagne. The drag icon stars in, writes, and directs the action comedy based on her stage play of the same name. Set in 1970s San Francisco, the film centers on Champagne Horowitz Jones Dickerson White (so she’s been married a few times, it’s none of your fucking business!) a foxy stripper caught up in a tangled plot. She witnesses her boyfriend Rod’s murder at the hands of two hired goons (Manuel Caneri & Adam Roy) and sets off on a quest to find out who had him killed. That person turns out to be Dixie Stampede (Matthew Martin), an evil mastermind with a dastardly plan involving hard drugs and big box retail. Champagne vows to take down Dixie and avenge Rod’s death.
It only gets more outrageous from there, but that’s intentional. Champagne is a send up of Blaxploitation films from the 70s, except with a white lead this time. So Whiploitation? It’s supposed to be over the top. Drollinger does a nice job of balancing the zaniness with well written comedy. It’s ridiculous in the best way possible. The production quality is great as well. At one point, Champagne and a goon get into an insane knockdown fight in a small bathroom. The sequence looks like something out of a mainstream movie with a larger budget. Well, minus the death by plunger.
Drollinger’s performance is the heart of the movie. She moves easily from sex kitten to clown and back again. Without her charisma the movie wouldn’t work. She gets ample support from Martin, the best campy high-kicking villain, and Steven LeMay, who plays Champagne’s ill-fated adopted stepsister, Brandy. LeMay steals every scene with her comedic timing and perfect calves.
If I have to offer any criticism, it would be that Champagne’s runtime is a little long and the leading man, Detective Hammer (Seton Brown), is dull. Aside from that this a dragtastically entertaining movie.
How to Build a Girl is a quirky endearing coming of age movie. Set in mid-90s England, it concentrates on sixteen-year-old outcast Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), who is continually bullied at school. While her family is supportive, they are pretty unstable. Plus, the only “people” she can talk to are the pictures of famous figures on her wall that come to life in her fantasies. She’s desperately yearning for something to happen in her life and take her out of this mess. That something arrives in the form of a job at an indie rock magazine.
At first the douchey all-male staff dismisses Johanna, but she manages to win them over with her genuine writing talent. She takes it a step further by reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a brash, biting music critic. Armed with a new persona and look (shocking red hair and even louder outfits), Johanna’s star quickly rises. But she soon realizes that she doesn’t necessarily like the girl she has become.
The movie is adapted from Caitlin Moran’s memoir and her life makes for an unusual yet enjoyable story. You root for Johanna to succeed and cringe when she falls on her face. Feldstein is extremely charming in the role. She brings both heart and the humor to her character. I also thought it was great that director Coky Giedroyc wasn’t afraid to show Johanna as a sexual person. She hops from man to man, like a sexual anthropologist. Usually with plus-sized women in movies, their sexuality is downplayed or ignored. Giedroyc puts it all out there in a frank manner.
I liked the overall message of the film: being comfortable in your skin and owning who you are despite what others think. Johanna sees that she has built herself up into someone she doesn’t recognize, so she breaks it all down and rebuilds. She ultimately becomes the person she is most proud of. It’s something anyone can identify with, in your teen years and beyond.
It wasn’t until a few days after seeing Girl that I realized how much it reminded me of the 1994 comedy Muriel’s Wedding. They each feature outrageous young women that don’t fit in with the popular crowd and decide to make themselves over into someone new. Both protagonists have oddball families. Plus, music (ABBA, indie rock) is featured heavily. Feldstein’s Johanna also has a similar affable energy as Toni Collette’s Muriel. The two films would make a great double feature. Maybe at a drive-in.
Ryan Murphy’s latest project, Hollywood, concentrates on the infamous movie industry town in the post-WWII 1940s. But this isn’t a straight up version of what happened back then. Instead, Murphy takes a detour and imagines “what if”. What if a black woman could have been the lead in a major motion picture? What if a woman ran the studio? Or what if a gay man was able to come out and still have a career?
A variety of characters bring this vision to life. Jack Costello (David Corenswet) is an actor who dreams of making it big in the movies. Unfortunately, he can’t get work and needs to support his family. That leads him to Ernie (Dylan McDermott) a colorful character who runs a gas station that is front for a prostitution ring. The attendants are all hot guys who fulfill the needs of customers looking to go to “Dreamland”. Jack’s first client is Avis (Patti Lupone), a former actress who is neglected by her brash studio boss husband, Ace (Rob Reiner). We also meet longtime Ace Studio executives Dick (Joe Mantello) and Ellen (Holland Taylor). Then there’s black aspiring ingenue Camille (Laura Harrier), her Filipino director boyfriend Raymond (Darren Criss), and Archie (Jeremy Pope), a gay black screenwriter. The show also includes real people from the era. Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) was an Asian actress who never got the chance to break out of the stereotypical roles Hollywood put her in. Murphy seeks to rectify that. Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons) was one of the slimiest talent managers in town. He sexually abused his clients, young men who trusted him with their careers. Parsons is fantastic at playing this reptilian character. Henry’s most famous client was debonair matinee idol Rock Hudson (Jake Picking). I’m a big Hudson fan, but this particular portrayal is horrible. He’s written as a clueless buffoon, stumbling in every scene. It’s a weird choice.
After the first few episodes, the new reality begins. Ace has a heart attack and is sidelined in the hospital. This allows Avis to step in and run the studio. She greenlights Meg, a film directed by Raymond, written by Archie, and starring Camille. None of these people would have been able to reach these goals in the actual 1940s, but in Murphy’s world all of the “others” can finally win. It’s an exciting concept to push aside the old straight white men and let someone else have the power. The problem I found, though, was the execution. Murphy hits us over the head with how monumental these fictional events would have been. Think of what it would have meant to a little black girl to see Camille on the big screen. And then he cuts to that girl. The same thing is done with a black gay man and an Asian family reacting to Archie and Anna’s successes. He doesn’t just show us, but also continually puts it in the dialogue. You can only hear people go on and on about their previously unattainable dreams before it begins to sound trite. I get it, this is a big deal. The other thing is that these triumphs are reached with very little pushback. It comes too easy, eliminating any tension in the plot.
On the plus side, the production is gorgeous. Murphy and crew meticulously recreate the decade through the sets, costumes, and music. Lupone’s hats deserve their own special Emmy. The younger actors are very charismatic, particularly Costello and Pope. I also liked the inclusion of the veteran actors who get to do a lot of heavy lifting. Seeing Mantello, Holland, McDermott, and Lupone in scenes together is captivating. I only wish that the story matched the strength of the other elements in the series.
The documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street thoroughly delves into the history of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and the effect it had on its star, Mark Patton. It’s an interesting look at how a movie can change someone’s life for better or worse.
In the first Elm Street, a group of teenagers are stalked and killed by boogeyman Freddy Kruger (Robert Englund) in their nightmares. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), the final girl, survives and defeats him. The movie did extremely well at the box office and led to a sequel being rushed into production. Part 2 strayed from the original’s formula though. For starters, the final girl was replaced with a guy, Jesse (Patton). That wasn’t something you normally saw back then. Also, Freddy wasn’t just haunting Jesse, he wanted to possess him and escape the dream world. The movie was moderately successful compared to the first. The biggest critique, mainly coming from straight men, was that it was too gay. They weren’t that off base.
In the film, Freddy wants to “get inside Jesse’s body” and his interactions with his prey are quite homoerotic. Then there’s Jesse’s possibly gay gym teacher, Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). Jesse dreams about running into him in at a leather bar. Later, Schneider is stripped (rare male nudity) and whipped with towels. Seriously. There’s also the notion that Jesse (and Patton) wasn’t masculine enough. It was said that he was too sensitive and screamed like a girl. The criticism negatively impacted Patton’s life. At the time he was a closeted actor trying to make it in Hollywood, so he worried that being associated with anything gay would derail his career. This was also 1985, the height of the AIDS epidemic. Gay equalled diseased and ultimately blacklisted. Patton discovered he was HIV-positive and retreated from acting. He went off the grid and moved to Mexico.
The documentary cuts to the present day with Patton coming to terms with Freddy’sRevenge. He’s still hurt by the jabs about his performance in the film and blames one person in particular, the screenwriter. For decades, David Chaskin denied that he purposely put gay elements into his script. Instead he inferred that Patton made the movie gay. But he never had a conversation with Patton about it either way. Luckily, the documentary captures their long-time-coming meetup. The film also shows Patton interacting with his former castmates, going to horror movie conventions, and doing Q&A’s after screenings of Freddy’sRevenge. You see that he’s accepted the legacy of the movie and Jesse. Yes, he still has issues from his past experiences, but he has been able to move on and create a good life for himself outside of Hollywood. Instead of becoming bitter he has a sense of humor about the situation. Plus, the once panned movie has now become a cult classic for many.
I like that Scream, Queen! co-directors Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen also focus on the overall appeal of horror movies to gay audiences. Many of the interviewees are fans of the genre who talk about escaping from their own harsh realities through these films. As outsiders, they find strength in seeing the protagonist fight back and beat the evil that is out to get them. It’s even more meaningful when a gay character or theme is added to the mix. The filmmakers show how powerful it is when a horror fan can identify with these movies with one fan mentioning how Jesse inspired him. Hopefully, in the future there will be more final “out of the ordinary” guys in horror movies and it won’t be so scary.
Sam Mendes’ 1917 follows two young soldiers on a dangerous mission during WWI. In the film, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with warning a British battalion that they are walking into a trap set by the German army. If they fail, 1,600 lives will be lost, including Blake’s brother (Richard Madden). The two men have to make it through enemy territory to the front line with very little time to spare.
The film was shot and edited to look like one long continuous take. This technique makes everything feel more contained and personal, as if you are alongside Schofield and Blake as they charge into claustrophobic spaces, crawl under barbed-wire, and dodge bullets. Mendes, who also co-wrote the screenplay, creates a nerve-wracking narrative with few breaks in the tension. There’s also the stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins, literally getting the viewer in trenches. In addition, MacKay and Chapman expertly convey the bravery and terror, along with a host of other emotions, that their characters are experiencing.
Mendes has said that he intended 1917 to be more of a thriller and less of a conventional war movie. He succeeds. Yes, history buffs will probably enjoy it, but this isn’t a stuffy boring story. It’s a compelling film that immerses you in these men’s lives and their journey.
The original Black Christmas is one of my favorite horror movies. Probably a strong #2 on the list. Because of that I don’t expect a remake to come close to matching it. Especially after that horrible 2006 version. Wow, that was an abysmal movie. So, I went into this new remake of Christmas just hoping it would be an improvement.
In the movie, set at mythical Hawthorne College, a group of sorority sisters are staying on campus during the Christmas break. What they don’t realize is that a masked killer is stalking the grounds, murdering women one by one. It’s a pretty standard set up. But this version of Christmas takes a new feminist stance. We learn that main character Riley (Imogen Poots) was assaulted a few years ago at a fraternity party. Since then she’s been timid and unable to find her voice. As the film progresses, she begins to fight back against the dangerous men who are circling her and her sisters.
I liked idea of injecting a strong dose feminism into a horror movie. Unfortunately, the execution is weak. Writer & director Sophia Takal clumsily handles issues of toxic masculinity, #metoo, and patriarchy. It never really comes together. You feel like she is hitting bullet points rather than smoothly incorporating them into the story. Also, this is a horror movie that isn’t very scary at all. There’s a lack of suspense and thrills. Just a couple of jump scares. But then the worst thing is when the big twist is revealed towards the end. It’s just so damn dumb and completely takes the viewer out of the story.
While I appreciate the idea of a new approach to a classic, this one really missed the mark. However, it’s still ten times better than the shitty 2006 version. So, there’s that.
In the summer of 1996, I was sixteen, living in Atlanta, and about to start my senior year of high school. I also had a job as a clerk at Kroger Video, the local grocery store version of Blockbuster. Yes, that was a thing. I spent most of my days working or watching movies that summer. But, like everyone else in town, I was captivated by the Olympics coming to Atlanta. It was a big deal to be chosen as the host city and everyone was glued to the action. Then things took a dark turn with the bombing in Centennial Park. Having experienced this all firsthand, I was particularly interested in the new movie, Richard Jewell, that depicts the events.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was a security guard working at Centennial Park during the Olympics. By chance he discovered a suspicious backpack in the park that turned out to be a bomb. Jewell helped to get hundreds of people to safety before the bomb went off. He was declared a hero, until an overzealous FBI agent (Jon Hamm) zeroed in on him as a suspect. Then an unscrupulous journalist (Olivia Wilde) got ahold of the story and ran in on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Jewell suddenly went from hero to villain.
Hauser does an excellent job of portraying this wronged man. It’s sometimes a subtle performance, but still very effective. He makes you feel angry for his character as he’s targeted by the authorities. Sam Rockwell plays Jewell’s lawyer and brings some much-needed comic relief. Kathy Bates turns in a terrific performance as Jewell’s mother. She is the heart of the film, showing how this ordeal affected those closest to Richard.
What’s most interesting about this story and the movie is how law enforcement and the media, with little to no evidence, railroaded this man. They invaded his home, slandered him, and made his life unbearable. It was all for nothing because he was innocent. Side note, that’s not a spoiler if you remember the story or visit Wikipedia. Six years after the attack, the actual bomber confessed. But for many, Jewell is probably who comes to mind when they think of the bombing. It even took me a second to remember that he didn’t do it when I heard about this movie coming out.
My one complaint is that this history lesson is told with broad strokes and not a great deal of depth. It’s more informative than impactful. Also, Clint Eastwood’s direction comes off as flat. Even the moment when the bomb goes off seems anticlimactic. Similarly, Ham and Wilde’s characters often come off as one note villains. Eastwood could have taken more time to explore their characters and motivations. Despite these faults, I liked the movie and the opportunity to revisit a significant moment from Atlanta’s past.